A couple of hours before kickoff on a winter Saturday, Forest Green Rovers (FGR) chief groundsman Adrian Witchell said he'd been "having problems with the sun." The logical conclusion might have been that he had a horticultural issue on his hands. But Witchell was actually referring to an article about him in the pages of the UK's foremost tabloid newspaper, The Sun.
The paper, which is best known for its brash headlines and sensationalist storytelling, had taken an interest in Witchell and the club's pioneering use of a self-operating, electric, solar-powered mower to cut what they're calling the world's first organic football pitch. Largely, it turns out, because when the mower sent him repeated text messages in the middle of one night, his wife thought he was having an affair.
He wasn't, and in any event, the incident is by no means the most interesting thing about either Witchell or the ground he keeps. It also wasn't the first spark of media interest. Quite the opposite. The club from the tiny village of Nailsworth in southwest England, which has spent the vast majority of its 130-year history in the obscurity of semiprofessional soccer, has recently found itself in the spotlight. Albeit more for its endeavors off the — organic — pitch than for those on it.
This new chapter in the history of the Forest Green Rovers started in 2010 when local renewable energy tycoon Dale Vince "rescued" them from slipping even further down the non-league tiers relegation and from dire financial straits. He set about turning the club into a sustainable and environmentally friendly enterprise as well as assembling players that took them into the professional league for the first time last year.
Given it wasn't of particular focus to major soccer clubs or their fans, Vince said they quickly saw they had an opportunity to communicate environmental issues to a whole new audience.
"We definitely weren't going to be preaching to the choir by taking sustainability into football," he told DW. "So that's what we decided to do, to run a green football club, to put these two things together in an improbable combination and see if we could use it as a channel to people — ultimately around the world."
Vince is a youthful 57. He moves through the main stand at FGR's New Lawn ground smiling and greeting fans, sporting tight jeans and an equally tight haircut.
He made his fortune in green energy, particularly wind farms, and his first ever turbine still stands like a totem pole on a hill over a club, which no lesser body than the United Nations has recognized as the world's first carbon neutral football club.
The club's green credentials are in full view. Rooftop solar panels generate power. There are promotional posters for meat substitute products, electric car charging points, stands painted with chemical-free paint, an "Eco-Trail" showing fans the club's sustainability efforts and the players' shirts feature the logo of radical environmental group Sea Shepherd.
But the change that has attracted the most media attention has been the removal of meat from the menu.
The club was declared the world's first official vegan club last year. When on work duty all staff from support personnel to the players and manager must eat vegan food. They can choose from an award winning menu cooked by chef Jade Crawford and her team.
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"Some of the players have actually turned vegan," Crawford said. "If you do it properly it really makes a difference. We try and source all our food organically, so it is expensive, but that's what Dale wants and we're really trying to spread the message."
Though fans of many established teams dismiss the vegan exercise as a fad and claim the club are doing nothing more than buying their way up the leagues, the Q-pie — a vegan take on a chicken and leek pie — has won awards and the vibe is transmitting to the FGR regulars.
"I came for the football first," said fan Chris Latham. "But one game while queuing for food, I saw the advert detailing the environmental impact of meat and I thought maybe I should try and do something about that."
He did, and is now vegan. "The food here is good so it was easy in that respect and I've never looked back really."
Spreading the word
Back on the pitch, which has been so successful and reliable that Adrian Witchell was invited to speak at a European groundkeepers' conference hosted by Spain's top flight club Real Madrid, he's busy preparing the surface. The organic turf is fertilized with seaweed and any water is drained off and stored nearby to be used again.
"Even the nets are biodegradable," he said, standing on his immaculate pitch that has also drawn interest from clubs including Ajax and Stoke City. "I need to know where everything I use comes from down to the last detail … I don't use pesticides or fertilizers or any of that rubbish."
And the approach is proving a hit, especially with young, family-oriented fans. By the time the match begins, 3,000 spectators have packed the stadium — double the average attendance of a couple of years ago. That's even though their opponents, Morecambe, have only brought a few dozen loyal followers on the long journey from the northwest.
If things go the way Vince would like and pending planning permission, the club will move into a new stadium outside the nearby town of Stroud . It would be the world's first to be constructed entirely from wood.
"We've done what we can here in what I would call a retrofit scenario," Vince said of the current stadium. "The location is not very good for access and parking and for car-free travel to the ground. Those problems will go away for us if we get to move into our new ground."
He says the new stadium would also allow the club to push the green boundaries of soccer.
What it would do for their game remains to be seen. Despite being favorites and dominating against Morecambe, the visiting side hits a late goal and FGR lost one-nil. But with the team nearly as high as they ever have been in the league, the fans still go home happy.